This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Media Battle Continues

Picture: Afhgan "War Carpet"
It hardly takes a genius to realise that there is little love lost between Russia's piarchiks (PR management) and most Western journalists: 'Putin: the brutal despot who is dragging the West into a new Cold War', the Daily Mail was heard to scream back in 2008. Hardly balanced journalism, and not an isolated incident either - rather just one (admittedly rather extreme) example of the British media's tendency to label any Russian activity not corresponding with British desires as anti-Western. Similarly, Russian media outlets (particularly TV news shows) rarely do the West any favours. I have lost count of the amount of times bewildered Russians have asked me why the Brits (and especially Alistair Darling) hate Russia so. Surely a product of over-hyped media representation of political manoeuvres?

Both Western and Russian journalists are guilty of, at best, selective editing and at worst, down right factual distortion, when reporting on the sensitive relationship between the West and newly-resurgent Russia. This tension was never clearer than during the so-called 'information war' which took place at the height of last year's Russian-Georgian war. Both Russian and Georgian officials criticised Western media for biased coverage of events. “We lost the information war in the first few days”, lamented Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Andrei Klyuchnikov, while on the other side of the border, Malkhaz Gulashvili, President of The Georgian Times Media Holding opined how: "Georgia has lost the information war since, unfortunately, foreign agencies frequently relied on Russian news sources controlled by the Kremlin. These would spread inaccurate news which foreign media had to reject later." Meanwhile, western commentators had their own suspicions about domestic portrayal of events accusing both Moscow and Tbilisi of being involved in a game of 'mythmaking.'

In September last year, Vlast’, (Kommersant’s weekly magazine) published an article detailing a series of ‘falsifications’ in the Russian media’s coverage of the Georgian war. Particularly interesting was their focus on the rehashing of a program first aired on the American TV channel Fox News, in which an Ossetian girl living in San Francisco was interviewed about the war. The girl, an American citizen, had been visiting relatives in Ossetia when bombs started to fall. She managed to escape back to the US via Moscow and had been invited to speak on the news program as an eyewitness to the events. During the broadcast she thanked the Russian troops, who, she said, had invaded South Ossetia to defend the people living there from Georgian aggression. Her aunt, who was also present, added that she believed Mr Saakashvili was entirely to blame for the war and for the deaths of many innocent people. Both the Russian version and the original American version have been subject to much criticism regarding honest portrayal of the facts. In the original version, the visibly ruffled American news anchor responded to the girl’s comments by quickly switching to an ad break, whilst promising the aunt that he “would never cut her off.” She was then given just 30 seconds to wrap up. His actions caused a furore about freedom of speech in America and criticism of attempts to distort events to fit a political agenda. Meanwhile, back in Russia, the clip was aired as evidence of American bias. In the Russian version, however, the clip was edited to make the anchorman appear ruder. Moreover, his final words, which were in response to the aunt’s assertion that Mr Saakashvili must be punished, “that’s what Russians want. There are many grey areas in war time” were edited to: “that’s what Russians want to hear.” A clear case of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black in terms of accusations of media bias?

Nearly a year on, Vlast' is revisiting the information war. In an article entitled "A Jubilee of Falsification", the publication addresses a more recent battle in this alleged 'information war.' This time the focus of media attention was a photograph of a heavily wounded young soldier allegedly taken by American journalist and war photographer, David Axe. On 8th August, Pervyi Kanal (Channel One) featured the picture in a documentary entitled "Live" War which purported to expose how Western news agencies falsify photographs taken from war zones in order to try and discredit the Russian army. Axe's photograph, which Pervyi Kanal alleged had been part of a series of photos depicting the Georgian war, was shown on the program alongside a voice recording of Axe, stating: “I took this photograph in Iraq.” Proof of Western duplicity, Pervyi Kanal exulted smugly.

But the plot thickens. Two days later, Arkady Babchenko, a special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta wrote a blog entry, laying claim to the photograph stating that he had shot it himself. Elsewhere across the blogosphere pictures appeared showing an un-cropped version of the photograph in which the orthodox cross and emblem of the Russian army were visible on the 'Iraqi' soldier. Bloggers were even able to get hold of Axe via email and received the following response: “I never claimed to have taken this photo. I just said that it was an example of a picture that clearly hadn't been faked.”

And so the media war continues, as a variety of different news agencies vie for the hearts, minds and loyalties of a wide spectrum of readers and watchers. It would be interesting to know how many people reading and watching these articles believe a word of what they're learning, in both Russia and the West. I hope that if even a small proportion of Russians feel even half the contempt for Russian news channels that a large proportion of Brits feel for The Daily Mail then the realm of media distortion can never take total control.

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